Kirk Crocker remembers being very afraid when he went on the weekend visit to his father’s home in April 1972. The boy was only 11, yet he had ample reason to distrust his once loving father, Houston-based petroleum engineer Kerry Crocker. A year earlier his parents had separated and divorced bitterly, leaving Kirk and his younger brother, Patrick, in the custody of their mother, Barbara—to the fury of Kerry Crocker. After that some strange incidents occurred which convinced young Kirk that, for reasons he could only guess at, his father was plotting secretly to harm, perhaps even to murder him. There was the waterskiing accident in which he had almost drowned while his father watched unmoved. “I must have gone up and down 10 times,” he recalls. “I was sure I was dying.” Another time Kerry Crocker took the boys camping and insisted that Kirk stay by himself at one end of the trailer. That night the trailer mysteriously exploded around Kirk, burning him on the head, legs and arms.
Though he dreaded it beforehand, the visit in April 1972 was passing uneventfully for Kirk. But on Saturday afternoon his father took Patrick out on an errand and left Kirk at home to watch TV, instructing him to sit still and make sure he used the headphones so as not to “disturb the neighbors.” Kirk immediately noticed that the headphones were stuffed with cotton. Picking them apart, he found what he later described as “shiny silver pellets.” Alarmed, he called his mother, but she told him not to worry. Later that day Kirk noticed that his fingers were red and sore, as if “sunburned.” When he visited his father over the next seven months, he noticed the pellets would often turn up nearby—in the pillow he slept on, under the cushion of the couch he was sleeping on and, finally, stuffed in a sock draped over his thighs when he awoke one night. Kirk began to break out in a rash, then in sores that wouldn’t heal. His hair began to fall out. Almost two years later, after visits to no fewer than 16 Houston doctors, it was determined that 13-year-old Kirk was stricken with radiation poisoning—and the suspicion was strong that his father had administered it with the pellets.
“My case was not just a loony man attacking his son,” says Kirk, now 24. “It was child abuse that culminated in a heinous crime. And when I was a kid, my father always got the benefit of the doubt.”
It still seems that way, at least to Kirk. In 1975 Kirk’s father was convicted under Texas law of castrating his son—the radiation had destroyed Kirk’s testicles, forcing him to maintain his male hormonal levels with painful injections of testosterone. Worse yet, his doctors recently discovered a chromosomal abnormality that could presage leukemia. Kirk’s father drew a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. He remained free until his appeal was denied in May 1978, whereupon he went on the run. Three more years elapsed before he was recaptured and at last began serving his sentence in January 1981. Now 53 years of age and a model prisoner, Kerry Crocker is eligible for parole this summer. Even if he is turned down, he is virtually assured of release in October 1986 under Texas law. Understandably, Kirk is fighting to keep his father in prison by bombarding the Texas parole board with letters and phone calls. He fervently believes, and hopes to convince the authorities, that Kerry is still a dangerous man. “I find it difficult to believe that he’s going to have a lot of other things to put his time into, aside from trying to get revenge,” says Kirk. “And I think he blames me for putting him in jail.”
The philosophical, almost scholarly manner in which Kirk discusses his case astonishes people aware of all that he has suffered. Even after he showed the agonizingly painful symptoms of radiation poisoning, months were lost because doctors were unable to diagnose his sickness correctly. One specialist told him his wounds were self-inflicted. Then he compounded the error by putting the boy in a body cast to test his theory. Finally, in December 1973, almost two years after Kirk’s exposure to the mysterious pellets, Dr. Thomas Cronin, a Houston plastic surgeon who has treated many victims of industrial radiation accidents, recognized Kirk’s open wounds as radiation burns. Ultimately the youngster had to undergo 23 operations, including multiple skin grafts, and was hospitalized periodically over the next six years.
Although Kirk and his mother told the doctors of their suspicions, hospital officials were still reluctant to look into the case for fear of legal ramifications. “They told me they would like to examine those pellets from a distance,” Kirk says now. “From a distance!” Then, in January 1974, Kirk’s stepfather, Harrie Smith, wrote a letter to the Texas Department of Health Resources outlining the case against Kerry Crocker. State officials checked and found that, indeed, Crocker had somehow acquired a license to purchase cesium-137, a low-grade radioactive substance sold for use in oil and gas exploration. “That case came so close to never being investigated,” recalls former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Mike Hinton. “Kirk’s stepfather had written his letter very well, but it was accompanied by this diagram that looked like something out of Buck Rogers. We almost just ignored the whole thing. But after I spent one day investigating the case, I became convinced that a horrible event had occurred.”
At his two-week trial Kirk’s father denied everything, answering “I don’t know” to many of the prosecutor’s questions. Neither prosecution nor defense suggested Kerry Crocker was mentally ill. He was convicted on only one of the five original charges, after two stronger counts were dropped by the prosecutor. Hinton was concerned that a conviction on more serious charges, such as attempted murder, might be overturned on appeal, allowing Crocker to escape punishment entirely. “We could circumstantially prove disfigurement all day long,” says Hinton, “but there was never any established motive to kill.” Kirk concludes that Crocker’s motive in unleashing the deadly radiation on his older and onetime favorite son was to get back at his former wife, who remarried in 1972. “My father then directed all his violence toward me since he could no longer direct it at her with impunity,” says Kirk. “He didn’t care at all about me.” Former prosecutor Hinton concurs: “He is perhaps the most evil person I have ever come across. This deed was not motivated by monetary or material reasons but for some emotional hatred or contempt I cannot fathom.”
Kirk will always bear the physical and emotional scars, but his life these days is a moving, gritty victory over adversity. He considers himself an orphan—his mother died three years ago—and his three-year marriage broke up in 1984. Yet Kirk has a wide and caring circle of friends. He is active in the real estate business and champions the cause of children who have become the victims of marital discord. “I can’t understand the authorities’ unwillingness to move into domestic violence, especially between ex-husbands and wives,” he says. “It’s an area in which adults act with irresponsibility, and children pay the price for the irresponsibility.” As for his own father’s probable release within the next 18 months, Kirk is admittedly nervous. “I hesitate to say that I hate my father for what he did to me,” he says. “I used to say that, but I don’t think that defines my feelings now. More accurately, I fear him and I don’t think he’s rehabilitated in any sense.”